Life sciences: Promising stories from the year so far

Dr Karin Oien, a clinician scientist and a mum-of-three, has welcomed Cancer Research UK's investment to transform clinical research training in Scotland.
Dr Karin Oien, a clinician scientist and a mum-of-three, has welcomed Cancer Research UK's investment to transform clinical research training in Scotland.
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It has been an encouragingly busy diary of activity for the life sciences sector in Scotland over 2019, as David Lee has noted

January

In what would be one of the biggest developments of the year, Exscienta announced that it had raised £20 million from investors Celgene Corporation, GT Healthcare Capital Partners and Evotec AG.

The University of Dundee spinout, a leader in the field of the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in drug discovery and design, sought the investment to scale up its operation towards clinical development.

The company also announced an AI drug discovery collaboration with Swiss healthcare firm Roche worth up to £53m.

Meanwhile, the key Scottish industry of salmon farming was given hope that one of its biggest challenges could be helped by initiatives worth £3.5m undertaken by two Scottish consortiums, including involvement from Scotland’s Rural College and the Roslin Institute, to improve gill health and resilience among farmed Atlantic salmon.

Find out more about The Scotsman’s 2019 life sciences conference >>

February

It emerged that Scotland’s life sciences companies had raised a record £85 million of equity investment during the preceding year, according to figures released by Life Sciences Scotland. This increase – boosted by new international venture capital support - was a 27 per cent rise on the previous year.

February also marked news that at University of Strathclyde, researchers had developed a low-cost test for earlier diagnosis of sepsis. The test was found to be quicker than existing hospital tests which can take up to 72 hours to process – by which time the condition may have proved fatal.

Edinburgh-based Current Health received clearance in the US for its remote patient monitoring system, a wearable, wireless device which automatically delivers data on patients to doctors without the need to be in hospital, thus allowing earlier intervention.

And at the University of Dundee, the Drug Discovery Unit entered a partnership with Japan’s largest pharma co. Takeda, to develop therapeutic treatments for tau pathology, a feature in degenerative conditions.

March

The remarkable story of a woman who could smell Parkinson’s disease was behind research at the University of Edinburgh which found that chemicals in the skin are responsible for a unique scent in people who are afflicted with the disorder. The chemicals can be detected in an oily substance called sebum, raising the suggestion that Parkinson’s could eventually be diagnosed using skin swabs.

Joy Milne, pictured, a retired nurse from Perth, astounded scientists when she spotted her husband’s change in health, based on his body having a new smell, ten years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

She later took part in a pilot study to smell the disease, in which she accurately identified which patients had Parkinson’s and which ones did not by smelling clothing they had worn for 24 hours.

Elsewhere, Exscientia and New Jersey firm Celgene announced a three-year AI collaboration focused on accelerating drug discovery in oncology and autoimmunity.

April

It was announced that life sciences would be part of a development described as the 21st century equivalent of the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde, after the the University of Glasgow outlined plans for the first stage of its Clyde Waterfront Innovation Campus )artist’s impression pictured).

A Precision Medicine Living Laboratory will be at the heart of the initial phase, strengthening Glasgow and Scotland’s ambition to be a world leader in that field.

In other developments, clinical-stage cell therapy company TC BioPharm initiated a trial in the Czech Republic of a new therapy for acute myeloid leukaemia patients.

And at The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise success, three Scottish life sciences firms emerged as winners – Optos of Dunfermline, and Glasgow’s Tissue Solutions and PHASTAR.

May

The number of doctors in Scotland who also carry out medical research was set to rise after Cancer Research UK awarded more than £6m to its research centres in Glasgow and Edinburgh this month. The funding programme was ear-marked to train early-career clinician scientists with a focus on retaining women scientists, who often do not return to research after qualifying as consultants.

Dr Karin Oien, pictured left, is a consultant based in Glasgow who was awarded a Cancer Research UK fellowship to fund her research. She said: “This investment will deliver a highly enthusiastic and educated workforce that will not only be able to deliver new diagnostics and treatments but they will also be able to help discover and develop them in the first place.”

Meanwhile, the University of Dundee’s reputation as a centre of scientific excellence was underlined when it was rated among the world’s best universities, at 15th place in the 2019 CWTS Leiden Rankings in terms of the impact of its scientific research.

In addition, two Scottish firms reported successful fundraising ventures – Aberdeen-based EnteroBiotix was poised to scale up after securing £2m seed extension investment, and Biotangents raised £1.5m to accelerate the roll-out of its diagnostic product for infectious livestock diseases.

June

The “silent killer” that is liver disease has been targeted by a team of scientists at the University of Dundee and NHS Tayside, with a new process of intelligent testing unveiled this month.

Initial trial results showed a 44 per cent increase in detection of liver disease, which gives patients earlier access to treatment. Blood samples requested by GPs frequently indicate abnormal liver function but are not always interpreted as liver disease. But in the trial, more specific tests were carried out automatically if an abnormal result was recorded.

Subsequently, there have been calls for a roll-out across the country, in view of the fact that 800 people in Scotland die as a result of liver disease every year.

Meanwhile, researchers at University of Glasgow were part of an international collaboration which aims to end the pain of endoscopy examinations with an invasive scope. An AI system has been devised to provide micro-ultrasound images from a tiny robotic capsule, pictured, that is guided into the colon.

July

Research led by scientists at the University of Strathclyde proposed a new way of targeting tumours through radiotherapy. External beam therapy could potentially transform radiotherapy by precisely concentrating high-energy particle beams on the affected area within the body while reducing the damage to surrounding healthy tissues.

The proposals will now be investigated at the Scottish Centre for the Application of Plasma-based Accelerator.

Elsewhere in July, The Digital Health and Care Institute, working with NHS Scotland, announced that patients requiring an endoscopy could soon be offered a less invasive form of treatment in community hubs or at home.

Away from critical health matters, researchers at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde built an artificial “tongue” which could detect counterfeit whisky by using the optical properties of gold and aluminium to “taste” sample drinks and identify fake imitations – with 99 per cent accuracy.

August

Biotechnology company MedAnnex announced a £11.5m equity investment led by Morningside Ventures, a major investor in the global life sciences sector based in Boston, US.

The investment will allow the Edinburgh-based firm to support further development of therapies which treat autoimmune disorders, modifying the immune system earlier than existing treatments, as it prepares for clinical trials.

The company was further boosted by an additional £1m follow-on funding from the Scottish Investment Bank.

In another transatlantic transaction, US company AskBio acquired the Edinburgh-based Synpromics to pool gene therapy technologies as they target complex diseases. Both companies continue to operate as separate entities with Synpromics, founded in 2010 and based at the Roslin Innovation Centre, retraining its name and remaining headquartered in Scotland.

September

The author JK Rowling, pictured right, strengthened her commitment to improve the lives of people with multiple sclerosis and similar conditions when she donated £15.3m to the University of Edinburgh.

The money will create new facilities and support research at the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. The facility was established after a previous donation made by Rowling nine years ago, and is named after her late mother, who died of multiple sclerosis aged 45.

Scotland has a higher rate of multiple sclerosis than the rest of the UK, and another condition which afflicts the country disproportionately was also in the headlines in September, when a major study carried out on 12,000 people north of the Border was published.

The research found that lung cancer can be diagnosed earlier and more precisely with the help of a blood test and CT scans, enabling prompt treatment and consequently better survival rates.

The trial was led by the University of Dundee and NHS Tayside, and part-funded by grants from Oncimmune, the test manufacturers, and the Scottish Government.

October

Advances in preventative dentistry and the fight against tooth decay received a boost when Edinburgh company Calcivis completed £4.5 million of fundraising to support development as it awaits pre-market approval of its Imaging System in the US.

The technology is designed to achieve better preservation of a patient’s original teeth by identifying problem areas earlier than before, and approval would give Calcivis access to the world’s biggest dentistry market.

Meanwhile, Lanarkshire laboratory services firm Crawford Scientific announced further growth after securing an undisclosed refinancing deal with Clydesdale Bank.

Finally, Edinburgh-based remote patient monitoring company Current Health announced two new partnerships to further develop its product, which had been cleared in February this year for use in post-acute care.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Life Sciences 2019 supplement. A digital version can be found here.